Staging a comeback

Published : Aug 26, 2011 00:00 IST

Sharmila Tagore, member of the 2007 META jury, flanked by (left) Ravi Dubey, creative director, META, and Rajeev Dubey, president, Human Resource and Corporate Services, Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, at the announcement of the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards in New Delhi on September 6, 2006. - RAJEEV BHATT

Sharmila Tagore, member of the 2007 META jury, flanked by (left) Ravi Dubey, creative director, META, and Rajeev Dubey, president, Human Resource and Corporate Services, Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, at the announcement of the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards in New Delhi on September 6, 2006. - RAJEEV BHATT

English language theatre has begun to find a definite niche and also regain the confidence it lost some years ago.

ONE has written on English language theatre in India earlier and predicted a dark future for it and for theatre in general. Perhaps, that was too extreme a view. One could use the same parameters and declare that the future of all the performing arts is dark and that everything will soon be consumed by that gigantic monster commonly called entertainment, Bollywood style.

That monster has been around for quite some time and grown not only in size but in complexity, developing all kinds of identities. The performing arts have also been around, but the monster has not devoured them, and some of them are actually doing fairly well.

Theatre is no exception and, against all logic, continues not only to exist but to draw more and more people to it. Within this, English language theatre has begun to find a definite niche and also regain the confidence that it lost some years ago.

It has received some very significant encouragement. For example, the awards given by The Hindu every year for the best scripts and the annual theatre festival organised by The Hindu in Chennai, which has grown in content and size. There is also the annual Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, or META, in New Delhi, where a full-fledged festival is followed, very imaginatively, by a series of plays presented by college groups, thus laying larger, firmer foundations for the awareness and love of theatre among the young.

The META festival is not confined to English language plays, but such plays have made a sizable place for themselves in successive years, partly because the organisers have no preconceived notions about the language of theatre and partly because more new plays are being written in English and performed to large appreciative audiences all over the country.

One wishes one could say the same thing about the National School of Drama (NSD) theatre festival, but that unfortunately still seems to have some kind of hang-up about plays in English not that they are excluded, but they are accepted with a reluctance that is now not just antiquated but actually comic. The NSD has only to look at some of the films being made by young directors in Bollywood to see what is really going on in terms of language.

These are just some of the factors that have encouraged theatre in English; the chief reason is clearly a general interest among the young in plays in that language. New theatre groups are being formed in every major city, and some of them have very committed young people working to present new plays, all for no payment, just for the love of it. They usually have some regular employment though some are full-time theatre professionals as well.

It can be argued that the interest of these young people lasts for just a few years and that they then leave for other cities or countries as they move on in their professional careers. But as one lot leaves, another arrives on the scene, with the same enthusiasm and dedication. The movement is a continuous trickle, and not a steady one at that.

What gives English language theatre life, and its dynamism, is the number of playwrights who produce new plays regularly: from such seasoned writers as Mahesh Dattani and Poile Sengupta to more recent writers such as Nicholas Kharkongor, Anuvab Pal and Neel Chaudhuri to the most recent such as Aditya Sudarshan and Abhishek Majumdar, both of whom have won The Hindu's MetroPlus Playwright Award, Sudarshan in 2011 for his play The Green Room and Majumdar in 2008 for Harlesden High Street.

The new plays have brought with them some young people who want to make theatre their profession. This needs courage because even with growing audiences and access to sponsors it cannot be easy to break even, leave alone make a modest amount by way of profit. But the fact that they are willing to try is an encouraging sign. One remembers, with some embarrassment, being eager and committed at the age of 21 to finding a life in theatre but discovering that one would not be able to last for even a week, particularly in those distant days when English language theatre was considered a sort of hobby by serious theatre people, who always, but always, performed in Hindi or in one of the other regional languages, including Bengali, Marathi and Kannada.

Perhaps, now young people will be able to make a life in English language theatre. Inevitably, some will look to television or the film world, where a new kind of language is emerging that has elements of Hindi and English in equal measure and is not the standard Hinglish one thinks it is. Some films are almost entirely in English, such as Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, while others have a good deal of it and of Hindi as well. This makes it possible for those from English language theatre to find gainful work there while continuing their theatre work as well.

There are, however, some pitfalls that could lead to English language theatre becoming irrelevant. Chief among these is the almost irresistible attraction some playwrights have for what are in the end gimmicks. If this kind of theatre is to continue to grow, its mantra must be its ability to communicate. Too often one hears of plays that seek to wake the people from their slumber and to reveal the stark reality. These and other such catchphrases are usually Trojan horses for a political ideology because plays can and often try to be political rants.

One needs to keep the nature of theatre firmly in mind, what Shakespeare calls the modesty of nature; theatre's goal both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure ( Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 2). One shows the audience what actually is, in terms they recognise and respond to, not in ways that leave them scratching their heads and asking one another: What on earth was that about?

At the last META festival, I saw a play called Dancing On Glass. One generally got the point that it was about young BPO executives, but it just did not come across as anything particular. And it did not help that the lighting was so weird that one rarely saw the faces of the actors, not to mention the actors' very indistinct delivery of their lines.

This is the danger of taking things to a point where one begins to lose the audience. In another play, one character was played by four different actors this is not a new device but one that rarely, if ever, works. Such things result in an alienation of the audience; give them more of this and they will disappear soon.

Later on, I was able to see a delightful play called Love Bytes by Divya Palat and her team not only did the plot unfold skilfully, the acting was professional, with one sad exception. One came away with the impression that English language theatre does have a future in the hands of the people in this group.

Creativity is there in abundance. There are plays which are presented in a manner that the audience can relate to. Sometimes an American or European play is performed and the response is as warm. As long as the mirror is held up to nature, English language theatre will grow, I am certain. There is a craving for it, and whenever a play is announced, the halls are full, not just in Bangalore and Mumbai but, from what one hears, in every major city.

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